Australia’s Football United programme has been recognised by the Australian Human Rights Commission for their ongoing work assisting refugees integrate into the community via the medium of football. A documentary, Football United: Passport to Hope, which covered the Football United team’s journey to the Football for Hope tournament conducted last year in Johannesburg during the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, recently won the Australian Human Rights award for television.

It was welcome recognition for a fast-growing programme, now in its fifth year, which aims to use football as a means of supporting the social integration of refugee children, young people and their families into the Australian community. With the support of many within the Australian football and wider community, including the governing body Football Federation Australia, the programme has developed rapidly and vastly enhanced the lives of many in a short space of time.

International language of football
The founder of the Football United programme, Anne Bunde-Birouste, has spent much of her life helping others and wanting to “save the world” as she puts it. Many years of travel, together with stints working in Africa, and then in France, cemented the belief that football could provide an answer, for the American born and raised Bunde-Birouste.

The extraordinary scenes in Paris following France’s victory at the 1998 FIFA World Cup being one of the many catalysts. “People from every walk of life imaginable were there to celebrate,” she says of France’s famously multicultural team parading down the Champs-Elysees.

For us, the Football for Hope festival offered a global view of everything we had dreamed about, and were working towards.

Football United founder Anne Bunde-Birouste

“Football is the global game and wherever you go, whatever country, you will always see kids kicking around a football,” says the passionate and inspirational Bunde-Birouste. “Many times these kids told me ‘football is the only thing has remained a constant for me’. Football gave these kids hope when there was no hope whatsoever. Football gave them fun, and it is also gave them a way to connect with people from other communities. The game also offers girls an opportunity that they never had before.”

After so many years working in this labour of love it was gratifying for both the programme and its most dedicated advocate when the Australian Human Rights Commission announced the award which recognises commitment to issues of human rights, social justice and equality. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. “There are many awards out there but this one was the absolute best recognition we could have hoped for because it recognises human rights and the rights of these kids to be here as Australians.”

Local support
Football United currently runs weekly football and Futsal programmes, holiday camps, leadership training and gala days, to reach its target group. The organisation is growing rapidly throughout schools and communities in western Sydney and is now starting to extend into other regions of Australia.

With the help of Government and corporate backing the programme has swelled rapidly but the Football United founder reserves special praise for the role played by Australian football’s governing body. “It is a great partnership with Football Federation Australia, we work together really well,” she says. “It brings recognition to us just as the award did. The FFA help us connect to people who run football across the country, and conversely we help them learn about what is happening on the ground.”

It was partly through such support that Football United were able to send a team to compete at last year’s hugely successful Football for Hope tournament in the Johannesburg township of Alexandria. Australia’s team was truly representative of the nation’s broad cultural mix, with the squad comprising refugees or immigrants with backgrounds including Jordan, Sudan, El Salvador, Nepal and Iraq. Former Socceroo Craig Foster described both the tournament and the programme as a “very powerful example of how football can change lives and change communities.”

The Australian representatives may not have won the tournament but the personal enrichment for each and every participant was immeasurable. “For us, the Football for Hope festival offered a global view of everything we had dreamed about, and were working towards,” says Bunde-Birouste. “It was also really cool to see friendships develop and different countries working together for a common cause, and seeing the incredibly genuine dedication of these people, whose true spirit is to change the world. We all believe in the power of football to do this.”